It seems that I'm having a bit of a nonfiction moment recently, but here's been such a lot of fascinating Aussie nonfiction lately. Like many people I've been really interested in trying to decrease my plastic footprint, particularly since I watched War on Waste in 2017, and there's acutally quite a bit to learn when you're going about that. More recently I read Zero Waste Life and made quite a few changes on the back of it. So I knew as soon as I saw Quitting Plastic that it was for me.
Quitting Plastic is written by a mother daughter team from Sydney. Clara Williams Roldan is a policy and legislative advisor for the NSW parliament ( a fact which makes me very happy), while her mother Louise Williams is an award winning journalist. They're clearly a talented family as another daughter Elowyn Williams Roldan did the illustrations.
While Quitting Plastic is full of practical tips and solutions for reducing plastic in our lives and our homes it also takes a broader historical view to look at how we got into this mess in the first place. How one third of all the plastic wrappers, packaging and bags that we use end up in our oceans. How we took "such a strong, high-performance material" and used it "to make disposable items that we toss away, often within minutes and without a second thought."
Plastics really boomed in the post (second world) war period. All that wartime deprivation, hardship and rationing was suddenly replaced by convenience, and we grabbed it with both hands.
In a flash, humanity went from the relative scarcity of natural materials and the deprivation of wartime to a utopia of plenty. We had a new, cheap material that appeared to last forever.... Cleaning up after ourselves was just another antiquated waste of time, while throwing out more and more disposable items symbolised modernity and efficiency. It represented a triumph over the drudgery of the past. why wash up if you could just throw the dishes and cutlery away? And plastic was at the forefront of this modern, new world."We had a new, cheap material that appeared to last forever. " Unfortunately it does, and that is exactly the problem we face now. We (and our oceans and marine life) are now literally drowning in single use plastic (the oxymoron of our times it seems).
They are lightweight, so they 'leak' easily into the environment. They are free, so we don't value them, and they are used only briefly before being tossed.Even so we had to learn to 'shop and toss'. Quitting Plastic tells us that when coffee vending machines were first introduced office workers would carefully wash the plastic cups for reuse. I remember my grandad washing every bread bag for reuse, there was always one drying on his clothes line.
In Australia 88% of metal waste is recovered for recycling or reuse, and nearly all our aluminium. Of course metal is heavy to transport and using lots of energy to produce and recycle. But just a fraction of our plastic is recycled. And there is a big difference between recyclable and recycled.
The big four of single-use plastic (straws, disposable coffee cups, plastic water bottles, plastic bags) are actually pretty easy to tackle. I recently made my own zero waste kit for my handbag, and it's been so easy, and such a delight to use. I don't drink coffee so I don't need a reusable coffee cup on hand at all times- I do have one for winter when I do quite like a chai latte from time to time. Reading Quitting Plastic made me wonder how men, who traditionally don't carry handbags, quit plastic. It's not going to be nearly so easy for them to carry about their zero waste kit.
I really like that Quitting Plastic reminds us that we can't be perfect, that it's a journey for all of us. Clara is more than ten years into her quitting plastic journey and still hasn't managed to get rid of it entirely. Just yesterday I asked for no straw in my smoothie at a local cafe. I got the straw anyway. When you're taking this issue deeply that can seem like a failing, that the world will self destruct somehow because I didn't manage to avoid that single straw. But it won't, and I've successfully dodged many other straws.
There is no way to fail quitting plastic, because it's a process.The majority of Quitting Plastic is a room by room guide to reducing plastic in our homes, and life. There are also chapters on Plastic-Free Kids (and isn't that a challenge?), Entertaining, and Eating (and Drinking) Out.
The major chapters are Kitchen, Laundry and Cleaning, The Bathroom, and Your Wardrobe. Within each chapter each activity is broken down with many subheadings, - Washing Your Clothes, Stain removers, Hair Care, Toilet Paper, Menstrual Products etc. Each subheading is given a category to indicate the relative ease with which changes can be made - Easy, Medium, Hard, Improving. Toothpaste is rated Hard, Clothes, wipes and brushes Easy. Clara gives a verdict on her experience with the various alternatives. Rather than listing companies or products that may be difficult to find where ever you are she lists relevant Search Terms to find products near you, online recipes and other solutions.
I was thrilled to see some tips about using Soapberries as I'd just bought my first packet on the very day that I read those words about them. Apparently soapberries work better on a warm/hot cycle to maximise their release of surfactants, which makes sense, but I only wash in cold water. So I currently have my little bag of soap nuts steeping in some boiling water on the stove. I can even wash the dog with that later apparently, so may have made my dog a plastic free beauty too. I will report back.
Much of our clothing is now synthetic, ie plastic, and the Your Wardrobe chapter was really eye opening. Global textile and footwear production doubled from 2000 to 2014, a period that also saw the arrival of fast fashion. I've been aware of the problems of microfibres entering our water ways from our washing machines for some time. I've been hoping that someone clever would solve this by the time I need a new washing machine, but it's still very alarming to know that a city the "size of Sydney is flushing plastic microfibres equivalent to 7.5 million plastic shopping bags down our drains via our washing machines every single day"!! 7.5 million bags. OMG.
Although there is some good news here too. Front loaders seem to generate fewer microfibres than top loaders. Yay. I have a front loader. There are interesting products becoming available to help trap microfibres before they enter the environment. Guppyfriend is a bag to put your synthetic clothing in in your washing machine. Cora Balls are a plastic ball designed to trap and collect fibres within your wash. I'm not sure that makes sense to me logistically. Surely the washing machine manufacturers need to sort this out? And governments need to regulate them to make sure they do so.
I'm not much into fashion, but have have bought quite a lot of clothes in the past few years, I've bought more than I used to, more than I should have. "Oh that isn't too bad, it fits ok, and doesn't look too hideous, I'll buy it." I know I have too many clothes now. I've read Marie Kondo's book, I've watched her Netflix series, but I haven't gone the full Kondo yet. But I have tried to stop buying new things. Last year I put myself on an official Black Pant Buying Ban. It hasn't been totally successful, but has made me more conscious of the problem. Quitting Plastic suggests taking the Spark Joy method back to the source - put your hand on potential purchases while they are still in the shops, before they get into your house, into your wardrobe where one in five garments will be left unworn or barely used. I have to say that I think my ratio may even be worse than that....
There is a (brief) section at the beginning help us to understand the different types of plastics, and how relatively Good or Bad they may be. I've heard a bit about bioplastics, but don't pretend to fully understand Compostable Bioplastics. Bioplastics can be made from a wide range of renewable resources - sugar cane, corn and agricultural and forestry waste. I get that, and that seems a good thing, rather than using non-renewable fossil fuels. But it's the compostable part I don't understand at this stage. Bioplastics apparently need industrial composting (and temperatures above 60 degrees) to break down. If put into landfill they will still emit greenhouse gases. But that they break down at all, surely they must not be the same plastic compounds that we are currently using?
It's a coming thing though, massive companies are feeling the zeitgeist and embracing change. Lego has committed to fully sustainable materials by 2030. It has kicked off with making (plastic) plants from Brazilian sugar cane. This plastic is still recyclable but not biodegradable. Lego doesn't want their products to be biodegradable I'm sure. The nomenclature is very confusing to me. European Bioplastics has a graph showing how bioplastics can be bio based, biodegradable or both. And rather confusingly bioplastics can still be made from fossil fuels.
Still I was thrilled to learn that Australia is working towards National Packaging Targets of 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025 through the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation. Although it's a shame that isn't listed in the reverse order - compostable, reusable, recyclable. So is individual effort still worthwhile? Undoubtedly yes.
What's driving change is us.The Covenant is voluntary. Targets can be missed. Plastic use is predicted to double again over the next twenty years. We need to still be driving that change. We are at the beginning of the end of single-use plastics.
I was planning to donate my copy of Quitting Plastic to my local library after I'd read it, but there's so much useful, practical advice in here that I'm going to keep it as a resource at home for now. I learnt a lot of new information from Quitting Plastic, it wasn't just a reiteration of things I already knew. I had no idea that vegan silk was a thing, or Qmilch - a fibre made from milk protein by a young German microbiologist way back in 2011! There's so many interesting things on the horizon.